This Too Shall Pass: How a Little Pain Will Offer Students a Lot of Gain

I hated hiking as a kid. It was hot, it was dusty, and it was always a forced family activity that I was required to complete. Fast forward a few decades, and hiking is now one of my favorite pastimes. I am grateful to my parents for ignoring my complaints and guiding me to push through the “pain” all those years, because once I was ready to embrace hiking on my own, I immediately fell back on all the lessons I had learned from family trips about my personal limitations and the tremendous rewards of spending time outdoors. 

It can be hard for teachers and parents to tolerate seeing their students and children uncomfortable or upset. The instinct is to immediately jump in and fix whatever is not going smoothly and to relieve the child of any pain or suffering. My advice? Let them struggle (within reason). Barring life-threatening situations or extreme danger, it’s healthy and good for kids to face challenges, and the benefits of letting them muddle through are immense. Here are just a few of the many ways that the saying no pain, no gain pans out in natural play. 

They will learn to tolerate a bit of discomfort. I once had a student who refused to sit on the ground for fear of getting her clothes dirty. One Forest Friday in September, she was blissfully running next to a creek when she lost her footing and SPLASH! she fell on her bottom into the water. The tantrum that ensued scared off all the wildlife for miles, and once it became clear that she was not physically hurt, she switched her attention to being upset about how wet and muddy her clothes were. I assured her that this too shall pass, but no amount of reassurance from me would appease her. Fortunately we had planned ahead and all the students kept a change of clothes back at school. I figured she would stay away from the creek from then on, but the next week, and every week after, she was the first one to jump into the creek. I never heard another complaint from her about her clothes.

They will learn their physical limits. Tree-climbing is a favorite activity at Forest Fridays, and I am careful to never set a limit on how high they can climb. Have I had to climb up into a tree to help an ambitious student who has climbed too high? Yes. Have I ever had to help that same child again? No. 

They will increase their endurance. The first walk back from the forest is always the same. “Are we there yet?” “I’m hot!” and “I wish we could fly back!” are a constant refrain. The next week a bit of the complaining is replaced with gushing about the awesome millipede we uncovered. With each ensuing week, the joyful chatter about the day’s discoveries gradually drowns out the whining about the hike. You’ll always have a few kids who can’t help but mention how long the walk feels, but for the majority, the trek becomes easier with each walk and seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend an afternoon in nature. 

They will venture out of their comfort zone more often (including in the classroom). Learning occurs when we brush up against things we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. We put children in this position of confronting their discomfort all day long in the classroom. We tell them, “I know this math problem looks hard, but we’re going to break it down and solve it together.” We say, “Yes this is a word you’ve never seen before, but we’ll look at the parts of the word and that will help us figure out what it means.” It’s no different in the outdoor classroom. When children are pushed to do unfamiliar activities, such as tasting a wild edible plant, or letting a garter snake run over their hand, they learn from that experience. Perhaps the most important lesson they learn is that they can do things they’ve never tried before, and they just might enjoy it.

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